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Oregon Secretary Of State Criticizes Governor For Reversal On Elliott State Forest Sale

<p>In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, Dennis Richardson, Oregon Republican Secretary of State candidate, pumps his fist at an election night event at the Salem Convention Center in Salem, Oregon.</p>

Timothy J. Gonzalez

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In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, Dennis Richardson, Oregon Republican Secretary of State candidate, pumps his fist at an election night event at the Salem Convention Center in Salem, Oregon.

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson on Saturday criticized Gov. Kate Brown for reversing her position on privatizing the 83,000-acre Elliott State Forest.

Richardson — who last year became the first Republican elected to statewide office in Oregon since 2002 — spotlighted the controversial proposal to sell the forest during a speech to more than 1,500 social conservatives gathered in Portland. They were at the Oregon Convention Center for an annual event known as the Freedom Rally.

The secretary of state earlier this month joined forces with another new state officeholder, Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat, to move forward with the $221 million sale despite strong opposition from environmental groups.

Brown, the third member of the state land board, said she no longer thinks the sale is a good idea and that she will continue to pursue attempts to keep the forest in state hands.

"The governor said, 'We can't sell this, we can't,'" Richardson said in a mocking tone. "And I'm thinking, where were you in August of 2015 when you said, 'Yes, we will sell it.'"

After his speech, Richardson said in an interview, "I am critical of Kate Brown for that. If they didn't want to sell the Elliott, they should have made that decision back in August of 2015."

Brown said at the last land board meeting that the state was not obligated to go ahead with a sale to the Lone Rock Timber Management and a tribal consortium. In particular, the governor said that with the future of federal public lands less certain, it was even more important to maintain the Elliott in public hands.

Richardson said that while the state might not be legally required to go ahead with the sale, it would be a breach of faith. He won loud applause from the audience as he talked about the potential timber productivity of the land and said it wasn't the equivalent of a Yosemite or Yellowstone.

The state is constitutionally required to manage the Elliott for the benefit of the Common School Fund. With increasing environmental restrictions, the forest has no longer generated consistent profits and has even lost money recently.

The state would put money from the sale of the Elliott into investments that could likely earn a higher rate of return. However, there is strong support among critics of the sale to instead have the state come up with the money to pay off the school fund's interest in the forest while keeping it in public hands.

Ironically, Richardson said he would have voted against the sale if he had been on the land board in 2015. He said the state should be getting a much better price for the land. And he urged attendees at the Freedom Rally to praise Read if they see him.

"Tell him, 'Thanks, Tobias, for being strong, for standing up for integrity, for ethics in state government," Richardson said.

Read has said he will look at alternatives to the Elliott Forest sale when the land board takes the issue up again in April. But Richardson said Saturday that he is confident the sale will proceed.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.